On the Gunas
In the Name of Allah, the Most Kind, the Kindest
بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ
“Music is haram you say, then haram for you may it stay,” is a Sufi saying in retort to those who condemn the practice of listening to it (sama’). Islamic scholars are often divided into two camps on this subject, those who consider it permissible and those who deem it prohibited (haram). Both agree that music has a powerful influence on the listener, for better or worse. Both camps also agree that if the music is lewd, immoral, racy, or promotes heedlessness and the consumption of intoxicants then it is better to avoid.
The former Grand Mufti and Shaykh of Al-Azhar, Jad al-Haq Ali Jad al-Haq, adopted a middle position in his edict saying:
“Listening to music, attending musical gatherings, studying music of all genres and all types of instruments is allowed as long as it is not accompanied by immoral and haram acts, or used as a tool to incite people to engage in sinful behaviour, and it does not preoccupy a person away from observing the obligatory acts of worship as stated in the chapters of al-Bukhari.”
I value his judgment and would like to discuss music (even the haram variety) from the Indic perspective of the gunas, or three qualities that make up the phenomenal world: sattva, law, harmony, purity, goodness; rajas, energy, passion; and tamas, inertia, ignorance, and disintegration. According to Sankhya, every state of matter and mind is a combination of these three qualities. Eknath Easwaran notes that “in the Gita, the gunas are described as the very fabric of existence, the veil that hides unity in a covering of diversity.”
I started contemplating the gunas of music after a dear friend asked me to listen to Meesha Shafi’s new song Hot Juicy Mango Chutney. She was curious to know the opinion of a Western Muslim. I prefer Coke Studio, but I am also open to new things. We were discussing this song within the larger context of society and parenting. The artist is a Canadian actress, model, and singer with Lahori roots. She is a feminist and truth speaker, which I admire. She shared with Forbes that she wanted to create a juicy, vibrant, and celebratory depiction of South Asian culture as well as bring up a serious conversation in the hyperpop genre. I feel the song is rajasic and wasn’t mentally prepared for that, but also feel it has an audience and market, which it certainly does.
The sensuous Hot Juicy Mango Chutney made me recall how parents and children often have different tastes in music. It also made me recollect the disagreements my father and I would have over music in my youth. He strongly disapproved of a Tori Amos CD cover (Boys for Pele) because it was rajasic. Ironically, the song that reminds me the most of my father (d. 2014) is Winter by Tori Amos. It’s a song about a father and daughter, in which the refrain is “when you gonna make up your mind? When you gonna love you as much as I do?” As a young man, my father went to the record store and purchased Handel’s Messiah and Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. He felt the two pieces were complementary, and I would agree.
As parents, we want to give our children the best of everything, which is only natural. Didn’t Christ say: “Who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone” (St. Matt., 7:9)? But the music of our youth usually expresses something pertinent to our time and place in history. Given the musicians’ proximity to our age, they are more attuned to our experience. It’s not surprising then that my father’s taste in music was comparable to my own when we were the same age. Nor am I, as a parent, that different from him.
So is there a time and place for tamasic and rajasic music or should we only hear that which is sattvic? A purist might say, “Yes, there’s no place for depravity and sin!” i.e. music that makes us feel energized, passionate, sexy, or destructive. But I feel it is more nuanced than that and that each type of music serves a purpose in terms of raising our vibration.
I certainly wouldn’t work out to sattvic music like Tajdar-e-Haram, Bismillah, or Zariya, which introduced me to Jordan’s Musical Ambassadress and virtuoso Farah Siraj. To get moving, I need something empowering like Katy Perry’s Rise, Roar, Firework, or Part of Me. When I need to speak up and find my voice, I put Brave by Sara Bareilles on a loop. Similarly, I’ve played Mean by Taylor Swift for our daughters because what she has to say in that song is not only beautifully expressed but relevant to school-aged children. In terms of feeling good about oneself, I do feel there is a place for music that makes you feel gorgeous and womanly or manly if you’re a man.
Tamasic music is often a type of socio-political commentary that expresses angst, malcontent, and the need for change. It lets society know that something is wrong with the established order. That things are stagnant and stifling. Isn’t that worth hearing? And isn’t it unfortunate that some people have to scream to be heard in our societies?
Music is meant to tune you to a higher pitch, as the renowned musicologist and Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan would say. It has the power to change our state from one of inertia to energy. It can make us serene or remind us of God and His beloveds (Tasbeeh Al-Zahra’a). It is best enjoyed intentionally, as Islamic scholars enjoin, with one’s larger purpose in mind.
“The true use of music is to become musical in one’s thoughts, words and actions,” observed Hazrat Inayat Khan, “One should be able to give the harmony for which the soul yearns and longs every moment.”
From one needy of your dua,
PS. It may be worth noting that my friend who brought this topic to my attention is a practical mystic and new grandmother. It was out of parental concern that we began exploring this topic together and we’re not alone. American singer-songwriter Justin Timberlake shared that his son cannot listen to a lot of his music, at least not yet. The music industry uses the word “explicit” to describe this type of content. All children need parental influence to mindfully guide them through the music of life. That’s what the Sacred Law aims to do as well by avoiding excess and preventing harm.
PPS. What do you think? I would love to hear your thoughts and continue this conversation. I would also love to know what you’d like to read about or discuss, what’s important to you and relevant at the moment?